Edward Alexander, a professor emeritus of English literature and incisive writer on a wide variety of Jewish topics, died last weekend. He was the author of sixteen books, the last of which, The Jews against Themselves, was reviewed in Mosaic here. Alexander’s own reflections on the literary critic Lionel Trilling’s “Jewish problem” can be read here. Of Alexander’s many reviews and essays in Commentary, among the most outstanding are his investigation of “Liberalism and Zionism,” his devastating takedown of the career of Edward Said, and, excerpted here, his reflection on the supposed lessons of the Holocaust (1993):
“World Jewry has a special responsibility.” This hectoring call blared forth from the midst of a New York Times op-ed piece by Flora Lewis entitled “Save Lives in Bosnia” (November 9, 1992). Jews, she argued, have acquired their special responsibility because of the Holocaust; having experienced so much persecution, now they have both the opportunity and the obligation “to show that concentration camps provoke the solidarity of victims of persecution.”
If this seems a peculiarly perverse lesson to extract from the Holocaust—its unstated corollary (as Conor Cruise O’Brien once pointed out in a different context) is that the descendants of people who have not been persecuted have no special responsibility to behave particularly well—it is sobriety itself when compared with some that have been expounded by even more nimble interpreters than Flora Lewis.
What do we learn from the Holocaust? In her posthumously published collection of essays, What Is the Use of Jewish History? [collected and edited by Neal Kozodoy], the distinguished historian Lucy S. Dawidowicz returns frequently to this question.
The first such lesson was the infectious power of anti-Semitism, especially when embodied in the state. The second was the importance of a strong countervailing military force—for if the pacifists, appeasers, and isolationists of the 1920s and 1930s had not had their way in England and America, Hitler would not have had his way in Europe. The third, “one which every Jewish child now knows,” was the necessity of Jewish political power and a Jewish state for Jewish survival. Those who reject these lessons have a vested interest in opposing the study of the Holocaust or in distorting its history.
Read more on Commentary: https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/edward-alexander/what-the-holocaust-does-not-teach/